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Studio Cruise '09 -- Sister act: Strand, Barthelemy turn sewing skills into art

"I don't generally see people as bunnies, I see bunnies as people," says Alice Strand. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall1 / 2
Two bunnies hold a birthday cake which is decorated with white icing and pink roses, Alice Strand's hand, on the sewing machine bed, is shown in the background for scale. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall2 / 2

Sisters Alice Strand and Billie Barthelemy and grew up at the Pinewood Ranger Station because their father, Robert Strand, was the forest ranger.

They now share a studio located at 23229 Roughrider Road N.W., in rural Pinewood. This is the second in a series of interviews with artists to be featured in the Studio Cruise '09 Oct. 16-18.

When they were young girls, their mother, Clarissa, a school teacher in Debs, taught them how to embroider. Their talent has grown over the years into two successful craft businesses: Alice's Animals - mini fabric animals - and Barthelemy's Bird of Paradise women's clothing.

Strand said she has been making "little creatures" for nearly 35 years. While a student at Bemidji State College, she started with a 3-foot-tall calico goose made for a friend. Now, that goose is made to scale and is 6 inches tall.

Her work is well known and appreciated by collectors because of the fine hand stitching, each piece made to exact scale with patterns she has developed over the years and the imaginative embellishments to make them real. The zebras have stripes, the leopards have spots and mother bunnies have smiles for their babies, all in three dimensional form.

In Strand's studio, her miniatures march over the windowsill and help out at the old Singer sewing machine as if they are hanging about and giving instructions. It would appear that Alice listens very closely to her menagerie. In the world of her miniatures, they seem to be running the workspace.

"I like to amaze people, and their reactions are really fun too," Strand said. "I enjoy the work, starting with nothing and ending up with a piece.

"I work in a synthetic suede cloth, which doesn't unravel."

She creates a line of little tiny rabbits, as well as other animals.

"The biggest one I do is a giraffe which is about 6 inches tall, and the biggest rabbits are about 3 1/2 inches," she said.

Strand said she never runs out of ideas.

"They never stop coming," she said. "Hand embroidery is one of my favorite things to do. I love what you can do with a little bit of fabric and some thread."

To get a view of the kind of work she does, look at her Web site, There is also a book of most of her designs and she does special orders so be sure to ask to see it.

Tucked into a corner of their studio is Barthelemy's space filled with boxes of fabric and samples of her work on portable racks. Her cutting table has pastel Chinese lanterns overhead and Twins banners on the wall.

"Our mother taught us how to sew, and my first piece of embroidery was a dish towel with a gopher on it," Bartholomy said. "Mother died when I was 10 years old and Alice was 11. In the fifth grade, I started to make my own clothes so I could have new clothes."

From that beginning, she said, sewing became a career.

"I got into embroidery again when our landlady in California gave me a bunch of diapers to embroider when I was pregnant with my son," Bartholomy said. "Then when we moved back here, I started to embroider a few pieces of clothing, and now it's what I do all the time."

The sisters said their current occupation was not what they had planned to do with their lives, it just happened.

Bartholomy said she took a lot of art courses in college in California. She said she has never studied pattern making but has learned by trial and error, as well as by using commercial patterns in the beginning. Most of her patterns are basic components which may be used in many ways. For example, a blouse pattern is then turned into a jacket, and sometimes customers will suggest a variation.

Most of the time, Barthelemy looks at her line of clothing and decides what needs to be added. She works with two fabrics: silk noil which comes from a company in California and cotton which is woven in Mexico. She orders it by the warf and woof, which account for the unique coloring in the fabric. All of the embroidery is by hand. Right now she is working on a dress where the entire front is embroidered that someone ordered for a Bar Mitzvah in Michigan. All of her garments are washable and the fabric is pre-shrunk to ensure fit.

Barthelemy sells much of her work at up-scale art fairs: the Ann Arbor Art Fair in Michigan and shows in Naples, Sarasota and West Palm Beach, Fla., and New York. In August, she participated in the Forestedge Winery Craft Show.

She will take orders based upon her designs, and the customer can pick the colors. Samples of her work can also be seen on her Web site,

To reach Strand and Barthelemy's studio, from Bemidji take U.S. Highway 2 west, state Highway 89 north to Beltrami County Road 24. Go west on 24 to County Road 513 and make a right onto County Rd. 24 North and continue for five miles, make Left onto 513 to Roughrider. The studio is located at 23229 Roughrider.